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Drivers warned to keep cool under caution

The potential for a lively Pepsi 400 drivers' discussion of the yellow-line rule quickly was diffused Saturday when NASCAR president Mike Helton issued a stern warning: self-police the unwritten gentleman's agreement regarding racing under caution or the governing body will.

"There doesn't seem to be much of a gentleman's agreement anymore," Helton told the prerace gathering of drivers and crew chiefs. "The drivers are the only ones on the racetrack that can make it happen. If it gets out of hand, NASCAR will have to step in. Drivers don't want NASCAR into that part (of racing)."

The impetus for the warning occurred June 22 when Robby Gordon raced through the yellow to pass teammate Kevin Harvick, going on to win the Dodge/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.

Richard Childress, a former driver who owns Gordon's and Harvick's cars, said drivers' perspective on the issue depends on their position in a race.

"If it comes down to winning, and when there's an open rule, people will take advantage of it," he said. "These guys will race back to the flag when it comes to winning the race."

Many expected some discussion of the yellow-line rule as Daytona International Speedway and Talladega are the only tracks where NASCAR prohibits drivers from dipping below the track's inner ring. Dale Earnhardt Jr. went below the barrier in the final laps to win the Aaron's 499 at Talladega on April 6 but was not penalized.

Drivers since have asked for clarification.

NASCAR managing event director David Hoots issued one to their apparent satisfaction: "If in NASCAR's judgment you go below the yellow line to gain an advantage, you will be black flagged. If you force someone else to go under the line, you will be black flagged."

The topic became more interesting Friday after series director John Darby, seeing Earnhardt Jr. venture below the yellow in the final minutes of practice, warned him the rule would be enforced for the Pepsi 400.

CRASH: Two laps after Kurt Busch was warned for ducking below the yellow line, he did it again, going into a spin that caused a seven-car accident and took out pole-sitter Steve Park, recent series winner Gordon and top rookie Jamie McMurray. Gordon's No. 31 Chevrolet caught Busch's No. 97 Ford as it rolled backward, and Mike Wallace's No. 01 Pontiac bumped Gordon into the wall. Ricky Craven and Joe Nemechek also were involved.

Busch, Park, Wallace and McMurray returned. Gordon was checked out, released at the track care center and returned to finish 40th.

STARTER: When you're 6 feet 2 and 300 pounds, you likely think in terms of food. Perhaps that's why Bucs defensive tackle and Pepsi 400 co-grand marshal Warren Sapp described driver Jeff Gordon as "appetizer size." Sapp said he was "shocked" to see the 5-7 Gordon, who weighs 150 pounds.

The 400 was the first race Sapp has seen live, but he said he became a NASCAR fan growing up in Apopka without cable TV and was forced to watch whatever was on. "I've just been a sports fan my whole life," he said.

Though he enjoys racing, Sapp isn't likely to get behind the wheel of a stock car any time soon _ that would take "an act of God," he said. "It's too fast, and that wall's too hard.

"I like quarterbacks that are nice and soft and cushy."

_ BRANT JAMES, JULIE WOOD

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